Cyberspace Becoming a Conflict Zone Says Ex-U.S. Official

U.S. companies and the government must do more to protect their computer networks as cyberthreats become more common, said the State Department’s former senior adviser on innovation.

“We have to harden our networks,” Alec Ross said in an interview yesterday with Deirdre Bolton on Bloomberg Television’s Money Moves. “Unfortunately, the cyberdomain is going from being merely competitive to increasingly conflict-ridden.”

Ross led the State Department’s “21st Century Statecraft” initiative under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an effort to use technology to bypass governments and speak directly to people around the world. President Barack Obama has prioritized cybersecurity, issuing an executive order on the issue Feb. 12 and hosting chief executive officers from energy, finance, and technology companies at the White House this week to discuss the threat of criminal and state-sponsored hackers.

Yesterday, Obama discussed the need for China and the U.S. to address the threat of cyberattacks in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to the White House.

National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a March 11 speech that U.S. businesses are increasingly expressing “serious concerns” about “sophisticated, targeted theft” of confidential information as a result of “intrusions emanating from China on an unprecedented scale.”

“From the president on down, this has become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments,” Donilon said in the address to the Asia Society.

Executive Order

Obama issued an executive order Feb. 12 outlining policies for wider sharing of government data on hacking with companies, particularly operators of vital infrastructure such as power grids. The order directed the government to develop voluntary cybersecurity standards for those businesses and instructs U.S. agencies to consider adding the standards to existing rules.

“We have seen a steady ramping up of cybersecurity threats,” Obama said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program broadcast March 13. “Some are state-sponsored,” and some are “just sponsored by criminals.”

James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee March 12 that hostile hackers or an “isolated state” may succeed in breaching U.S. computer networks and disrupting power grids and other vital services in the next two years.

Ross said that his four years at the State Department underscored that power is shifting from governments to individuals, driven largely by technology.

“Things that would have once taken a huge media company or a government or tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of upfront capital,” Ross said, “now because of processing power that exists in the consumer’s pockets, things can be done much more agilely by small institutions and individuals.”

In an effort to reach people around the world, the State Department and U.S. embassies had at least 195 accounts with San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. by the end of Ross’ tenure, and 290 pages on Facebook Inc. with 15 million subscribers and tens of millions more visitors.